Thursday, November 10, 2011

Guest Post: Don Giovanni in HD

Recently I attended The Metropolitan Opera's production of Don Giovanni via one of the Met's successful and continuing series of live HD broadcasts to movie theaters. I enjoyed the performance and the opera-centric atmosphere, complete with Renee Fleming interviewing cast members during intermission, but when it came time to write a review I was at a loss. My knowledge of opera is minimal and I'm not sure that I know how to review a filmed presentation of a performance meant to be seen on a stage. I'm pleased to offer this review by my father, Dr. Stanley Crowe. Dad's appreciation for this art form and ability to speak to what he liked and didn't like about the production are peerless in my experience, and I hope this post begins a habit of his posting here or at his own yet to be created blog. Enjoy.

Any time that you experience opera via an artificial medium (i. e. anywhere NOT in the opera house itself), all sorts of adjustments have to made. Hearing an opera on the radio or on CD just isn’t the same as being there. That’s also true of seeing it on the big screen in HD with God knows what kind of sound system. It’s too close, too loud, too big – but the alternative (not experiencing it at all) is unacceptable, so you make a set of adjustments. With all that in mind, here’s a response to the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni that was broadcast in HD into movie theaters a couple of weeks ago. I assume a basic knowledge of the plot.

When at the end of Act 1 (there are only two Acts) the Don is publicly exposed as a serial seducer, murderer, and general scoundrel, it would seem to follow that the Don in Act2 should behave in a way that reflects his awareness that in a social sense his life is over. I expect a kind of fatalism – a kind of going through the motions, where earlier he brought some relish to his attempted conquests. That Mozart intended this might be indicated by the scene in which he invites to dinner the statue of the Commendatore, the man he killed while attempting to seduce his daughter in Act 1. And it would seem to follow from that that when the Commendatore’s statue actually comes to dinner in the final scene the Don understands, and even fatalistically accepts, the consequences: his damnation. Rather, perhaps, he acknowledges that his behavior throughout has been that of a damned soul. It was a weakness, I think, of the Met production that that sense of fatalism was absent in Act 2, despite the excellent singing and the effective stage business. Perhaps the fault lay with the Don himself, the Polish baritone Marius Kwiecien, who acted vividly, looked splendid, sang forcefully and often beautifully, but whose demeanor remained too much of a piece throughout. Fabio Luisi conducted vigorously – at times I thought too much so (the “Champagne aria” seemed rushed, and the concerted finale of Act 1 seemed a bit of a scramble) – but I don’t know that he contributed to what I felt wasn’t quite right about Act2.

The singing throughout was strong. Luca Pisaroni was the excellent Leporello, and his interaction with the Don was lively and credible. The experienced Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli was a secure and touching Donna Elvira, and the young Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka was a strong Donna Anna. The big surprise, for me, was the performance of the Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Don Ottavio. Long a favorite of mine in light Italian roles and as Werther and Lenski (in Eugene Onegin), I didn’t realize that he has been doing Mozart roles recently (a Don Ottavio in London and Idomeneo in Salzburg). At 51, he was totally in command of the musical requirements of the part, singing with lovely tone and appropriate style, in a way that neither Bjoerling nor Domingo (great singers both) could manage. Twenty years ago, Vargas was an Almaviva in Rossini’s Barbiere, and he hasn’t lost the touch. He is to my mind the best tenor in the Italian repertory post-Domingo. Don Ottavio often seems wimpish, and it was to the credit of both Vargas and the director Michael Grandage that Ottavio rarely appeared without either a pistol or a sword in his hand and looked willing, even eager, to use them.

The set was drab, unfortunately. Was the point that for the all the upper-class elegance the Don’s story was a tawdry one? The final scene prior to the statue’s entrance was cheesy, and I don’t know what I was looking at in the scene where Giovanni and Leporello invite the statue to dinner – a high class columbarium, maybe? But the stage interactions were fluid, and the singers responsive to one another. If this performance comes out on DVD, you wouldn’t be sorry to buy it – but you might want to try too the recent Royal Opera House performance with Simon Keenlyside as the Don and Charles Mackerras conducting, and with Vargas, Joyce DiDonato, Marina Poplavskaya, Miah Persson (as Zerlina), and Eric Halfvarson as the statue.

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